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Autism: A Wide Spectrum

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April is Autism Awareness Month. Autistic individuals have trouble with communication and social interaction. They are often emotionally detached and inflexible.

In the past, higher functioning autistics were given the label Asperger Syndrome. Others, who fit some characteristics of the disorder, were called PDD/NOS. Now the American Psychiatric Association has proposed removing these distinctions, and combining the conditions under one heading, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Like the color spectrum or the electromagnetic spectrum, the autism spectrum reflects a continuum of this complicated disorder, from genius to extremely handicapped. The spectrum concept underlines the fact that everyone with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is affected differently. There is a wide range of intelligence, varying levels of communication ability, and a broad range of strengths and difficulties.

The faces of autism are diverse. Some lead independent lives and have successful careers, while others need constant care. Some are unable to speak; others are very articulate, but unable to decipher facial expressions and body language. Some have cognitive impairments. Others, like Daniel Tammet or Kim Peek, have savant skills - extraordinary gifts in a particular field, such as music, art, or mathematics.

Many believe that writers Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll, composers Beethoven and Mozart, artists Vincent Van Gogh and Andy Warhol, and scientists Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla were on the autism spectrum. Well known, contemporary autistics include actress Daryl Hannah, anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, music critic Tim Paige, Nobel prizewinner Vernon Smith, and animal science professor Temple Grandin.

This higher end of the autism spectrum includes many people who go through life pretending to be normal, trying to fit into a world that refuses to accept them. Many can do some difficult things well while other, so-called 'simple' things are very difficult for them. They have trouble relating to their peers or making light conversation. They may be unable to read facial expressions or sustain eye contact. They may seem oblivious and may have unusual reactions to sensory stimuli like sudden noises or the flickering of fluorescent lights.

But neurotypical people can't understand how someone who seems so "bright" has major problems with certain 'simple' things. So while many on the spectrum work very hard to achieve, they're misunderstood and perceived as socially inept oddballs lacking emotional insight. When they try to explain their differences, they're berated for making excuses.

The recent Neurodiversity movement strives to gain greater acceptance of people whose brains are wired differently, who show variation in thought, emotion and behavior from commonly accepted norms. Brain research explains the physiological basis of behavior, emotion and thought, recognizing that human nature and the human brain are incredibly complex and diverse. Today, diversity programs accept differences in gender and race. Physical disabilities are accommodated with wheelchair ramps and lifts. In the same way, neurological disabilities must also become understood and accommodated. As a society, we need to respect different ways of thinking, being and doing things. We must work together to create a world where all individuals are included, supported, and accepted.

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Yvona Fast is an author, freelance writer, food columnist, editor, researcher and speaker. Her first book is a career guide for individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning disability. She is currently working on her second book, My (more...)
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